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Monday, July 8, 2013

Guest Response to "So you think you wanna write liturgical songs?"

by Michael A. Cymbala

I couldn’t resist responding to Rory Cooney’s thought-provoking blog that appeared on May 3, 2012 entitled, “So, You Think You Wanna Write Liturgical Songs,” and I thank him for giving me the opportunity to offer my comments as a guest blogger. I would like to comment on two items drawn from Rory’s blog; first, the “new technology,” (the world of the web and, in particular, recorded and printable downloads) and secondly, the present day so-called “glut” of liturgical music. 

As we all know the new technology has not only had an effect on the realm of recorded music but on the rest of the world as well. Business has been affected beyond what
Mike Cymbala.
I'm guessing this wasn't taken in Chicagoland.
anyone could have imagined and liturgical music publishers were not immune to the new wave. While the church community might be “behind the curve,” as Rory would say, for the purpose of this discussion I would like to suggest, “be careful what you wish for.”

I recall a time when liturgical composers were upset that their music was not available on iTunes and in downloadable printed forms.  Well, it is now. I recall when emerging web-based companies were formed and created by people who had great faith in the possibilities of the web to revolutionize the liturgical music industry. Some of the newly formed companies promised, “instant availability and free of charge for all”! They were actually serious, never realizing nor considering that no real form of compensation was included, making it next to impossible for producers to realize a return on their investment, and never considering any form of compensation for composers. “It’s free, it’s free, and instantly available to the entire world, it’s free, it’s free!” they joyfully proclaimed. What were they thinking? 

And I recall some very well intentioned and enthusiastic folks who came of age when the new technology was all the rage and who held Al Gore’s new invention in high regard.  It was as though they had discovered a new tool that could do anything and would revolutionize the liturgical music industry.  Can we all agree that the end result might not have produced what was hoped for?  

From the business perspective, while printed catalogs and free-of-charge 800 numbers may be purchase avenues of the past, have the new web pages increased business? Have online product information and sound bites increased sales or profits? Is more new liturgical music getting published any faster?  Has the small-boutique-niche-market, that is liturgical music, increased in size due to web access? Did the new technology help attract more participants to attend more conventions, workshops, choral festivals, or concerts? Are webinars picking up any of the reduction, in the live participation, that might have taken place at these events? Are church musicians any more qualified or educated or better paid than they were prior to the invention of the smart phone? It seems the liturgical music industry just isn’t as vibrant as it used to be. Why? 

While I personally might not have been as up-to-date with the new technology as others were, I was definitely intrigued by it all. I was happy to see a new and, for the most part, younger generation coming on the scene with a gift to offer that had never before been available.  They chuckled while folks in my generation struggled to attach a document. One could only assume that a new day was dawning that would take our industry to new heights with a new generation leading the way.  Are we there yet?  

I came of age in the post Vatican II era when a new vernacular liturgy was introduced followed by a modern day, 40 or so year, renaissance of newly composed music for liturgy in a wide variety of styles which was subsequently published, distributed, and absorbed into the hearts of English speaking Christians world-wide.  Along the way, after the rise and fall of many composers and publishing houses, composers and publishers were fairly compensated for their endeavors. I’m not suggesting that anything perfect happened, but it was all accomplished without downloads, web pages or digital anything…not even email. I think it’s fair to say that the generation who struggled to attach a document did enjoy some rather grand accomplishments long before the advent of the word processor.

And please don’t get me wrong; I am not knocking the new technology. On the contrary, I am using it, even as I write, reaching the world with my favorite feature of all…  spellcheck!  The instant communication alone that the new technology offers is marvelous. The sharing of information has redefined education and even saved lives. New industries have flourished. We all can be thankful that future historians will have this new tool to verify and consider facts and figures, and I suspect it will be difficult to write people out of history. However, I, for one, am disappointed, and with good reason. The music industry, both secular and sacred, does not seem to be sharing in the benefits. It sounds as though Rory might agree with me. The music industry is not what it once was and one can realistically conclude that technology did contribute to the present day situation.  We have definitely turned a page and there’s no turning back. But, I think the day has arrived to reevaluate or maybe there’s more than just one reform that needs some reforming.

Likewise, I am not pointing the finger of blame at publishers. Unfortunately, there seems to be a natural tendency to blame publishers for just about everything. For some reason they tend to be one of the natural dumping grounds for the world’s problems. But in this case, I contend that publishers are just as much a victim, of the present day situation, as are the composers. However, I will add that if the industry can turn itself around, it will most likely be the publishers that will need to find a solution. 

Beyond technology, what else might have contributed to the downturn in this sacred musical world we so love? Has the enthusiasm factor run its course? Are the music file cabinets just too full? Is this another case of “mission accomplished”? Is enough enough? Is the new technology even a factor in this discussion? Perhaps it’s the economy; stupid? And last but not least, a subject for another day, the general decline in church attendance with all the many reasons that may be the cause.

What seems to be missing in the liturgical music world right now is a thirst for new material.  In the past decade or so, singers of liturgical music have settled into a basic repertoire that, at least for the time being and for better or for worse, seems to satisfy the majority of music ministers and the all-important folks in the pews. I cannot remember the last time I attended a liturgy where the musician mounted the cantor stand or ambo and lined out a new song. “We are going to learn a new song today” used to be the opening words of most Sunday liturgies.  These days it seems the first and most important criteria for planning music at a liturgy is choosing something the people know and know well.  There are those who even prefer something the folks can sing by heart and let’s face it, both of the above approaches are usually good things resulting in the best possible participation.  The downside, however, is the subject at hand.  There just does not seem to be a whole lot of interest in new songs resulting in some frustrating days for songwriters and likewise the slowing down of a very creative era. 

While we cannot create a thirst for new music, it would seem to me that there has got to be a way that both composers and publishers can put the new technology to better use.  I suggest that yesterday’s young new technology devotees, who may have grown a bit and now have the benefit of more experience, take up the challenge and re-evaluate the future use of technology in the liturgical music-publishing vineyard. Perhaps they are trying to do just that; I certainly hope so. I myself don’t have all the answers, but perhaps together we can all find new ways to economically produce, market, and distribute new liturgical songs in a new way that creates some interest and excitement while ensuring a just form of compensation for both the artist and the producer.  We must keep in mind that, most importantly, the people of God deserve to have the best and are worthy, and in need, of singing fresh and thought-provoking new material that enlivens their worship and faith ever anew. Believers often learn and sustain their faith through song. The scriptures tell us to sing new ones, not a bad idea.  

There are some liturgical songs that have appeared through the years, that were just too good to ignore or “too big to fail,” as folks might say. I always thought that there was something “pretty” about the most popular titles, something that touched people’s hearts, something that made people stop, listen, think, and then, quite naturally, just sing along.  Rory’s “Canticle of the Turning” is but one good example.  Seasoned composers need to face the fact that the bar is currently a lot higher and publishing dollars are no longer flowing like milk and honey.  No doubt they already know this.

Even though there may currently be a glut of liturgical music, I would like to offer a particular word of encouragement to young unpublished composers: the most popular and widely sung songs, as well as the most enduring songs, that any liturgical composer writes can usually be found among his/her earliest attempts. There seems to be a certain charm about the music in the first few collections composers write that is always hard to match or top. Maybe this is reason enough for younger writers to keep trying. I have always said: “It’s the song, stupid!”  To the new aspiring composers I will add: “Keep trying and writing; nothing can stop a great new song.” 

To take this conversation to another level, in closing, I will add that what I found most interesting about the CNN article, mentioned in Rory’s blog, was the many comments that followed. I saw little, if any, sympathy for either the music industry or the recording artists… “Off with their heads,” and “Let them eat cake”… respectively.  So if composers and/or publishers are looking for sympathy, it seems as though none is forthcoming from the general public. Another item that hit home for me, from the comments on the CNN article, were the many comments to the effect that there just isn’t any great new popular music in the works. Here we ponder a matter of opinion. We must remember that the conversation regarding what new music is “great” is very much an ongoing conversation. I cannot remember a time when new music was not evaluated, critiqued, praised, and often criticized. As we observe the current state of liturgical music it is only natural that we question the quality of the music liturgical composers are currently offering and look for examples of newly composed texts and tunes that might likely become mainstream. This is indeed a worthy topic for discussion.  May this ongoing conversation continue. 

Here’s a link to an article on the piracy issue.  A New York ad agency created an intriguing ad campaign that met the piracy issue head on. I believe that this type of imaginative thinking, and marketing approach, might well benefit the liturgical music world. 

Copyright © 2013, Michael A. Cymbala. All Rights Reserved.

Michael A. Cymbala is an independent consultant and writer with over 30 years experience in pastoral music making and publishing.